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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): In March 1998, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee produced an excellent report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. In May last year, the Government responded by saying that they were beginning work on a plan to implement a series of changes in line with the Committee's recommendations. May we have a debate in which we can learn what is happening, because we have heard nothing on the subject since and important elections will take place next year, including local government elections and perhaps even a Westminster election?
Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and powerful point. The Northern Ireland Office has a great deal on its plate at the moment, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the elections that are due next year.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on science in the Chamber in the near future? Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have been disappointed that many hon. Members respond to scientific advances with fear and loathing--often arising from incomprehension--rather than hope and inspiration. If we are to capitalise on advances in biotechnology and build on our incredibly successful pharmaceutical industries, we need a better understanding of the issues.
Mrs. Beckett: I share my hon. Friend's view that science is a very important subject. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the Chamber in the near future, but I understand that there will be a debate next week on a report by the Science and Technology Committee in Westminster Hall. I know also that my
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Is there any possibility that the Home Secretary will make another statement to tell the House the outcome of the inquiries that he announced in his statement on Tuesday? He said that several questions remained unanswered and that he was seeking answers. Will the House be given those answers? Our constituents who write to us with representations about the need for more policemen on the beat have been left with the unwelcome impression that the largest congregation of policemen brought together for an operational purpose were effectively ordered to stand by and watch while the nation's most important monuments were desecrated.
Mrs. Beckett: I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. It is right and proper for hon. Members to ask questions about the nature of the decisions that were taken and why they were taken, but it is also important for the House to avoid straying into second-guessing the operational decisions that have to be made by the police. It would be especially unfortunate if any impression were created that any hon. Member was attacking the police. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to do that.
Mrs. Beckett: I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees again. We must be grateful to the police for the excellent job they do. Their tactical decisions are the decisions they have to make because they are at the sharp end.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent bid for the assets and workings of Associated British Ports by the Japanese investment bank Nomura? At present, it is not clear whether the bank wishes to develop the land on which the ports stand or wishes to operate the ports. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend make time available for a debate on the future of UK ports, particularly those that are strategic to the UK economy, such as Southampton?
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, particularly as he is one of the hon. Members who represent the great port of Southampton. My understanding is that the bid to which he refers has not yet been successful, but I recognise his wish to air the issues that surround it. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the House in the near future, but my hon. Friend, like others, might like to explore the possibility of putting a question to Ministers during Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions questions next Tuesday, or raising the matter in Westminster Hall.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a statement to the House? Not only will the closure have a devastating effect on the sheep industry on the Welsh borders, but it exposes a fundamental flaw in the way in which the Food Standards Agency has been constituted in that it cannot act as an executive agency via the Meat Hygiene Service and as the policing agency for the industry.
Mrs. Beckett: I was not aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, although he will know, as he is a regular attender at these questions, that there is great concern about the operation of abattoirs and the Meat Hygiene Service. I fear that I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friends to make a special statement, but I feel confident that with a little ingenuity, and some good will from the Chair, the hon. Gentleman might manage to raise the matter during the debate on the common agricultural policy next week.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Given that local elections are being held today, as well as Londonwide elections, would my right hon. Friend, after consultation with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, consider arranging for a debate on council tax valuation? Certainly, there has been a live debate on the rights and wrongs of second home discounts, but I am more concerned about the possible need for revaluations of the bandings because park homes, which are also known as mobile homes, are valued at well below £40,000--the level at which council tax bandings start. A week ago, I visited the Berkeley Vale site in my constituency, so I know that the matter is a source of aggravation. Is it time for a proper, informed debate.
Mrs. Beckett: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I cannot undertake to find time for a specific debate on the matter in the near future, nor can I say offhand whether he will find a slot in oral questions to DETR next week. However, a working group is looking at the precise issue that he raised, with regard to the concerns of those who own or rent mobile homes. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Minister.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the inquiry of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), can we please have an urgent debate on local government? Does the right hon. Lady accept that that would provide an excellent opportunity for the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the leader of the Liberal Democrats to defend the fact that their parties in control of local councils charge respectively £124 and £79 a year more than Conservative authorities for band D council tax? Would it not also provide an admirable opportunity for my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge
Mrs. Beckett: I am tempted by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should have a debate on local government, especially one focusing on council tax. For perfectly understandable reasons, Conservative Members are--and have always been--obsessed with one council tax band or another, although precisely which band preoccupies them changes according to what best suits their case.
My experience is that people do not give a damn about how the tax is calculated: what they care about is the amount that they pay. For some reason the hon. Gentleman did not think to mention the fact that people living in Labour areas pay the lowest average council taxes and have had the lowest average rise in council taxes.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) may not be as grateful to the hon. Gentleman as the hon. Gentleman imagines, as the council tax in Tory-controlled Tunbridge Wells has gone up by 7.5 per cent. compared with the average increase in Labour-controlled councils of 5.9 per cent. The hon. Gentleman will understand why I am tempted to grant his request, but I fear that I just cannot find the time.